The next day they returned to the beach, taking a picnic lunch. They flew up the coast again, further than they had the day before. Collin stopped them at a spot which wasn’t as white. Trees bordered a narrow tan sanded area which was littered with stones. A rocky finger stretched out into the sea, as if some god had taken a fistful of house sized gravel from the mountains and flung it into the water.
Collin took them out on the rocks, and they jumped from stone to large stone, occasionally stopping to look down into the clear water and the creatures trapped in the small pools between the rocks. When they reached a large flat rock almost at the tip of the finger, Collin opened their lunch.
Michael had to admit he was enjoying himself. Exploring with a guide like Collin was as different from what he’d experienced in the woods as he could get. He’d even stopped looking over his shoulder for dragons, becoming immersed in the small creatures Collin pointed out.
Collin raised his hand, this time holding it out toward the sea. “A Terillian whale.”
Michael saw the beast then, or rather saw something dark slip into the water. He kept watching, but then looked back at his sandwich.
“Keep watching,” Collin instructed.
And then Michael saw the beast, closer than before. It lunged out of the water, arched, and then dived back in, a huge tail being the last part to disappear. “It’s coming toward us!” Michael scrambled up.
“Relax,” Collin commanded. Then he continued in his normal voice. “That whale is based on the plankton eating whales of Terran Earth. It’s harmless. Although I hope it doesn’t come much closer, because it’ll beach itself in shallow water.”
Michael glanced at Kayden. She trusted Collin completely and was straining to see more of the whale. He relaxed.
When they finished eating they made their way back to shore. As they walked along it, Kayden said, “I wonder how Quinn and Gaben are doing? I hate leaving the animals for so long. I’m sure they’re probably too busy for them.”
“I’ve thought about hiring someone to work in the stables -- maybe a couple,” Collin said, stooping down and picking up a bright stone. “An emerald. Just needs to be cut and polished.”
“Really?” Kayden admired it and then handed it to Michael to study. “You want someone to take over my job?”
“Not take over,” Collin said, still scanning the stones beneath their feet. “You’d be in charge. But then you could take a vacation, or help in surgery, and you wouldn’t have the pressure of wondering if your babies are still being taken care of. That’s why I hired Gaben, remember? So Quinn or I wouldn’t have the pressure to be there all the time.”
They walked along the beach in silence, scanning the ground and water’s edge. “So where would I find a couple who’d want to do this? Where would they stay?”
“Well, we do have one extra room until we could build them a small house of their own south of the barn. As far as finding a couple, Michael was telling me just the other day about a couple he’d met in Capitol.”
Michael shot Collin a glance, but Collin didn’t look up from the stones.
“The man’s just a few years off probation, but the woman is the daughter of a defunct horse rancher. Takes care of a few private horses in Capitol while he works the factory. What was her name, Michael?”
“Yeah. Niles and Marta. Maybe we can check them out and see if he’d be interested in leaving the factory.”
Michael wanted to protest, but yet he couldn’t. The move and job in Hope under Collin’s generous care would probably be far better than what Niles had now. But Collin was making it harder for Kayden to leave him. Instead he said, “Marta spent a whole day teaching me about horses. I didn’t know a thing when I was given Twilight. She loved the horse, too. Don’t know how I’ll tell her he was eaten by a green monster.”
Collin’s hand rested briefly on his shoulder. “Growing up on the planet, she’ll probably just be thankful you’re still alive.”
“How can people stand to raise families here, knowing any moment their children could be carried off.”
“But they aren’t, Michael,” Collin said. “Unless you leave them out at night or let them wander alone. Simple precautions protect most people. Notice, we’re safe right now, but if we linger until dusk, we’ll need to take cover.”
“But I know I had a couple more hours of light at that lake! I was still attacked.”
“And you were already weak, injured, and in a remote area.”
“This is remote.”
“Yes,” Collin agreed. “But numbers increase your safety.”
Michael whirled around to face him. “You’re saying we could be killed any moment.”
Collin stopped before him and looked into his eyes, raising his hand again to Michael’s shoulder. “No. You will not be killed here. Trust your guide, Michael. I would have cautioned you if I had any intentions of endangering your life.”
Michael stalked away from him. Sure, he’d save him. If he died, all Collin’s problems would be solved. He would keep Kayden to himself, trapped on this ugly, little world.
A bird jumped into flight, startling him. It’d been the color of the rocks, but as it opened its wings and rose above him, a rainbow of colors assaulted his senses. Light diffused through its wings from above, giving it an otherworldly glow.
Collin smiled. “The smaller sand phoenix, designed by Yvoni Chan. Beautiful, isn’t it? Just wait until you run across a greater sand phoenix. Six foot wingspan. Breathtaking.”
“Okay! Okay! I give up. It’s not an ugly little world, okay! And you are as manipulative as an android.”
“Michael! He is not. He’s great.” Kayden wrapped her arm around Collin’s waist.
Collin raised his eyebrows not taking his gaze from Michael, his smile stretching a bit, as if he found him immensely humorous. “Your similes are interesting. Most people consider machines devoid of devious intentions.”
“How can you think Collin has any bad intentions, Michael?” She clung to Collin, and he kissed her forehead as if proving he had her foremost loyalty.
And Michael wanted to curse him because he did. But he couldn’t. He could only continue walking down the beach. “You can’t see how he’s trying to get me to like this place?” he protested to Kayden.
“Oh, that!” Kayden jogged to him slipped her arm around his waist. “I’m doing that too, so I guess I’m a manipulative little android also.”
Michael let his laughter relax him this time. He couldn’t stay angry at them when Collin had told him up front about trying to get him to love the planet. And he couldn’t admit what had really angered him. Collin had turned his information on Niles Pannier to his best advantage. If Kayden’s memory would be sparked, he would have complete control over the event.
They flew back to the inn and stayed the night. Early the next morning, Collin checked them out and flew them to Alexandria. “You two, go on ahead,” Collin said. “I’m going to go around back, check into a room and stable our friends. I’ll meet you up at Dr. Ithica’s office.”
Kayden and Michael relinquished Kayden’s wingdeer Sam and their bag with their finds and purchases from Jacada. As they walked through the door, Michael asked, “Have you ever been here?”
“Maybe once when Collin picked up some more medicine, but it’s pretty boring, all hospital business, getting medicine and bargaining for new equipment. I’d rather stay home.”
“You!” cried the receptionist as he approached the desk. She stood and ran around it. “You thief!” Michael glanced behind him and was shocked when he realized the woman was pointing at him.
A man in a security uniform darted to him and grabbed his arm. “It’s okay, Miss Burton. I’ve got him. What’d he take?”
“He didn’t take anything!” Kayden said, agitated. “Let him go.”
“He’s the one who took the painting. It disappeared right after he’d been here asking about it.” She pointed toward her desk.
Michael noticed now that the painting of Collin Alexander and his wife was not there. The wall was blank and white. He saw the painting again in his mind. Collin Alexander . . . .
“He didn’t take anything,” Kayden insisted. “He’s here to see Dr. Ithica.” Was it panic in her voice? Was she scared for him?
Michael slipped his arm around her waist. “I’m sure Dr. Ithica will straighten this out, Sweetheart.” He focused on the man clutching his arm. “I did not take the painting. If I did, would I be returning to see Dr. Ithica?”
The guard dropped his hand from Michael’s arm. “Miss Burton, Dr. Ithica said it wasn’t a crime. It was a purchase. You received your share of the money.”
“Dr. Ithica is wrong. Purchases don’t happen in the middle of the night.”
“Thieves don’t leave money.”
“Someone stole a picture, but left money?” Kayden asked.
“And a note saying he was taking it to a special gallery.”
“And what was this wonderful picture of?”
“Hospital’s founder, Ma’am,” said the guard. “The only one known to be around.”
Kayden no longer seemed scared. In fact she seemed amused. “A portrait? Well, Michael has lived with Dr. Alex Collin and I for about a month now and he definitely didn’t have a picture on him. I’m Dr. Collin’s assistant and daughter -- Kayden.” She glanced up at Michael and hugged his arm tighter; her eyes seemed to twinkle. “Michael and I are engaged. I know he wouldn’t do anything like that. He’s studying to be a doctor now.”
Michael brushed his lips against her forehead. “I really do need to see Dr. Ithica about a job he offered me before I left for Hope.”
“Of course.” The guard ushered him into the rest of the hospital.
“But I know he did it!” She ran after him, following them all the way up to Dr. Ithica’s office on the second floor.
Dr. Ithica was coming out of his office as they reached it. “Dr. Ithica,” Michael said.
He raised his eyes from the papers in his hand and then stopped. “Michael Jamel. You’re back.” He motioned him toward the office, ignoring the others with him.
“But Dr. Ithica. This is the man I told you about. This is the thief.”
“The painting was sold, not stolen. The matter is settled.” He ushered Michael into his office.
Michael kept hold of Kayden’s hand and pulled her in with him right before the doctor closed the door on the guard and Miss Burton.
Dr. Ithica looked over Kayden and then shook his head. “You found her? The injuries you described . . . .”
“I guess I was misinformed. She wasn’t as badly hurt as I thought,” Michael said quickly. Alex Collin. Collin Alexander. The man claimed he had secrets. The man claimed he owned all portraits of himself. Did Dr. Ithica know?
Dr. Ithica sat at his desk and motioned Michael and Kayden to sit in the chairs in front of it. “I wish you would have asked me if you desired to take the portrait. I’m sure we could have come to an arrangement.”
“I didn’t take the portrait. I left here and went into the interior of the continent to the shuttle crash site. I met up with Alex Collin who owns a cabin there.”
Dr. Ithica studied him and then seemed to accept his words. “So you’ve returned to work for us?”
“I can today until four and tomorrow morning until noon. Then I am obligated to return to Hope with Kayden and Alex Collin. I also wondered if you could compile a report on what you deem are the biggest medical needs. I’m going to ask Dr. Collin for the same thing from a rural perspective.”
“And then you’ll take the report to Director Raleigh personally?”
“That is my plan.”
Kayden pulled her hand away from his and stood. “Guess we won’t be getting married then.” And she walked from the room.
She slammed the door and was gone.
Michael leaned back. It was no use following. He knew she’d be with Collin. “That is I’ll go back as soon as I get that stubborn woman to remember where she belongs. She has a bit of amnesia. Well, what do you have for me to do today?”
Dr. Ithica stood, and they walked from the office. Kayden was in Collin’s arms to the left of the door. Her face was damp, and Michael wondered if it was more than just their misunderstanding.
Collin caught Michael’s arm as they started past. “We’re in Room 311. Meet us there at four.”
Dr. Ithica focused on Collin. “Have we met?”
Collin held out his hand. “Dr. Collin. I’ve been in and out of the hospital almost every month for years. I’m sure I’ve seen you.”
Dr. Ithica shook his hand. “That must be it. Did you need to see me?”
“No. I’m just on my way down to the dispensary to cajole a few more medical supplies.” Collin moved both him and Kayden in the opposite direction.
Dr. Ithica watched them leave for a moment but then led Michael back to the secured lab area. “You follow his orders?”
Michael shrugged. “I ran into some trouble. He doctored me back to health and has given me a place to stay. He’s also adopted Kayden, which has been good for her, but bad for taking her back home.”
“If you decide to stay, you could still work here. I’m sure I could pay you better.”
Michael smiled. It was good to have options. “How’d you come to this planet, Doctor?”
“I was born here. So were my parents. We weren’t convicts.”
Michael noted that Kayden was right about her assessment of history. “Did you ever want to get away from those dragons? Did you ever just want to leave?”
“Dragons have never bother me,” Dr. Ithica said. “I’m not fool enough to tempt them.”
Michael shrugged. “Guess I’m a fool with a shredded back, but I don’t want to give the beasts another chance.”
Dr. Ithica held open the door to the lab so they could enter. “They don’t generally come into the cities. It’s more a rural problem. Perhaps this would be a good compromise for your fiancée. Go, file your reports and then come back here.” He met Dr. Snavey. “Here’s the miracle worker. He’s only here for a few hours so put him in x-ray room two.”
Michael settled into work, and he didn’t stop for lunch. He had just solved the problem and was putting the massive unit back together when a security guard came into the room. “There’s a Doc Collin looking for you.”
Michael glanced at the clock. It was almost five. “I’m in trouble. I’m going to leave this until tomorrow morning. I’ll finish then.” Michael packed away his tools as he spoke. “Where is he?”
The guard led him out of the secured section. Collin leaned against the hall wall, and Kayden sat on a bench.
“I’m sorry. I lost track of time,” Michael said. “The x-ray machine is archaic.”
Collin simply motioned him and Kayden to follow. Kayden didn’t look at him, slipping her arm around Collin’s waist.
As they walked through the front lobby, the receptionist ran past them and blocked the door. “You stole my grandfather’s painting, and you won’t get away with it.”
Michael rolled his eyes and caught Collin’s expression out of the corner of his eye. One of surprise. His suspicion from earlier returned. The man had obtained the portrait by other means. He didn’t know how it was possible. He had to be Collin Alexander’s grandson or great grandson. Any other explanation was ludicrous.
But the secretary suddenly stared at Alex Collin. “You. You must be related.”
“To Michael?” Collin said, his face assuming a detached humor. “No. And if he keeps messing up, my daughter will never marry him.”
“No. To Collin Alexander.”
“I’m afraid, dear lady, you don’t know your history well. Dr. Alexander never had any children. I’ve seen Dr. Burton’s art. Tell me, does the family plan to make a gallery for it?”
She scowled. “For what reason? It would cost too much to maintain a building like that. No one would pay to keep it up or to see the pictures. I’ll just sell off the rest of his work.”
“I would be interested in seeing your collection then. Would it be possible tomorrow morning?”
She glared at Michael. “He stole the portrait.”
Collin laughed. “If he stole it, a dragon ate it before I met him. He came with nothing but dragon wounds.” He then studied Michael critically. “Of course, the man is a stranger.” He sighed. “Pity if he did steal it. It’d be ruined. If it never turns up, then perhaps you are right about him. Who would guess he’d steal something that big and bulky?”
Michael wanted to protest that he didn’t steal the painting, but he knew what Collin was doing. Throwing the suspicion from himself. And he knew Collin was the real thief without a doubt now. Probably protecting his ancestor’s reputation against an illicit liaison. But the names bothered him. He needed to do research on both Collin Alexander and Alex Collin.
“You could have just asked to buy it, you know,” the woman said. “You probably would have gotten a better price.”
“He left money?” Collin said, feigning the shock, Michael was sure.
“Yeah, but the hospital took half, since I’d donated the picture to them.”
“Aah. Well, if he’d negotiated with the hospital to buy it you wouldn’t have gotten any, would you? Perhaps he did you a favor.” He herded them toward the door. “But we are late. I must go.”
Outside they walked in silence down the noisy street. Horses alone and drawing carts, trucks, and carriages rumbled past.
“You would have to get into trouble the minute we get here,” Collin mumbled.
Michael looked over in outrage, opening his mouth to speak. But then he caught Collin’s wink and grin. Michael closed his mouth.
“Don’t, Collin,” Kayden said, grabbing his hand. “He’s a liar. I don’t trust him.”
“Now Kayden, is that any way to talk about the man who risked his life to find you? Hush now, and tell me what you want in this wondrous leather shop. Ulan is the best tanner on the planet, and his wife is an excellent seamstress.” He pushed open the door of Ulan Tole’s shop.
Kayden’s frown turned to a smile, and she ran to the first rack of jackets. “Oh, Collin. It’s like a rainbow of dragons.”
Michael looked through the dragon-hide items this time, wishing they’d have come here after he got paid from the hospital. He could use a new pack, or maybe just a new report folder. He ran his hands over a silvery grey pouch, good for storing paper reports.
“Switching to paper?”
“Grandfather wants all my reports on paper.”
“Charles Jamel? Then let me buy this to keep them in. Will you allow me to include my own reports of the planet and of Jamel -- the A unit?”
“Of course. I’d planned to ask you when the time came. He will appreciate your impressions as a non-technical user.”
Collin’s grin widened, but he simply took the pouch from Michael’s hands. “Do you think silver or perhaps this burnished copper. It can hold more pages, and my report will be in depth.” He set the silver back, and then glanced at Michael. “Ah, but you could probably use one. Would you like a dragon-hide pack for a souvenir of your stay also?”
“Kayden, find yourself a pack and a new riding cap if you’d like. It’d keep your beautiful hair from tangling. Also, if you want a new jacket or a new money pouch.”
“Collin! Don’t spend all your money.”
He grinned. “I won’t. Trust me, Sweetheart. Pick out your favorites and don’t feel guilty. After all, I’m also lavishing gifts on your sworn enemy, Sir Michael.”
“He’s not my enemy,” she grumbled, but Michael caught the edge of her lips lifting as she fought the smile.
A young clerk watched them from the counter, but said nothing. Then the large man he’d talked to before came out. “We have guests,” Michael heard the man say, although his voice was low. “Why aren’t you with them?” He shook his head and then approached Michael. When he saw him his face hardened. “I’m afraid I can not help you, sir.”
Collin approached them with his ‘the world is one big joke’ grin. “Hey, Ulan Tole. Alex Collin. We met a few years back when my friend had a bronze dragon-hide which needed processing. I’d like you to meet my daughter’s fiancé, Michael Jamel.”
“Collin! He’s not my fiancé!”
Collin chuckled. “Lover’s quarrel.”
Ulan Tole though, stared at Collin. “I . . . .” Then he looked at Michael. “Yes. I remember you, now. A ladies jacket and a man’s vest.”
“You got it, Ulan. You did an excellent job for him, so while we were in town I thought I’d bring my daughter in and do a little shopping. I’ve been neglecting her terribly, and she only has one rose jacket.”
“And does she have a favorite color,” Ulan asked, going into the solicitous salesman routine.
Collin motioned to Kayden who cautiously came forward. “I’d like a rose pack to match my jacket, but I don’t see one here.”
“We just acquired a rose hide several days ago. Perhaps it would meet your needs.” He led them into the back room, where there were several bundles of fresh hides, the strong gamey odor, filling the room. Then he had some hides rolled out, one black and one rose.
“I need to buy one of these,” Michael said, going to the closest waist high bundle. “How much are they?”
“I do not sell unprocessed hides,” Ulan said sharply. “It is part of my agreement with my supplier.”
“Hans Trapper. I need to talk to him.”
Kayden laughed. “Just go find the pack Collin promised you.”
“You don’t understand. I don’t plan to do anything with it but give it to Governor Hollis. He expects . . . .”
“Michael,” Collin said. “Ulan will not break his contract. If you needed a hide you should have asked Quinn.”
“I did! He told me . . . .” No, he couldn’t say what Quinn had told him in front of Ulan. “Told me it was an accident.”
“We’ll talk about this later, Michael.”
“That rose is perfect,” Kayden said. She took Michael’s arm. “Let’s go look some more.”
Michael hesitated and then walked back toward the front showroom with Kayden. At the doorway, he paused to look back. Ulan and Collin were talking in words too low for him to hear. He didn’t like being ordered around as if he were a child. He had obligations to fulfill. He wasn’t Collin’s slave. Maybe he should take the job Dr. Ithica kept offering. Michael gritted his teeth. He couldn’t. Then he’d never win Kayden. He had to let Collin boss him for a while longer.